It’s often said that the only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys. Forty years ago, I earmarked the profits from my newspaper route to buy a new bicycle; today I can hardly wait to pick up my new 2001 Pro Stock Grand Am. I tell my accountant (and my wife) that a new race car is really an investment, a tool to promote our business and to keep Reher-Morrison Racing Engines on the leading edge of engine development. But just between you and me, I wouldn’t be gearing up for 24 weekends on the road next year if I didn’t enjoy racing.
I come from a family of teachers, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up standing in front of a classroom. My father lectured on economics, but my specialty is racing engines. I thought I knew that subject well – until my students asked questions that I couldn’t answer!
This year we’ve hosted a series of Reher-Morrison Racing Engine Schools at our shop in Arlington, Texas. It’s rare to have a weekend when Bruce Allen and I aren’t racing or testing our Pro Stock Firebird, but I’ve found myself looking forward to the classroom sessions. A recent group of students who came for a two-day class was really into internal combustion, and their enthusiasm renewed my interest in parts and pieces that I’ve worked with for years.
There is a rule of thumb in the computer industry that speed and memory double every six months – at half the price. Alongside today’s Pentium processors and mega-gigabyte hard drives, the personal computers and that were state-of-the-art a few years ago now seem like steam-powered antiques.
The PC revolution has had a huge impact on drag racing – and not just in data acquisition systems and weather correction programs. The development of powerful mini-computers has dramatically cut the cost of horsepower by making sophisticated CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machining readily available. The result: Racers get more bang for their bucks than ever before.
I am neither a golfer nor a golfing fan, but even I have heard about Tiger Woods. It seems there isn’t a national magazine, television news program, or newspaper that hasn’t featured golf’s latest multimillionaire. Woods’ success on the links has brought even greater success on his business ledger, with personal endorsements for everything from credit cards to sport shirts.
I know that buying a set of Tiger Woods golf clubs will not make me as good a golfer as he is. I have no illusions that owning a Mark McGwire baseball bat or a Michael Jordan basketball will make me a sports superhero. Unfortunately, some racers don’t understand that buying the parts used by successful drivers does not guarantee a place in the winner’s circle.
Our era is often referred to as the Information Age, but not all of the available information is necessarily useful. I am beginning to think that flow benches should be labeled with a government warning: “Caution! Excessive reliance on flow numbers may be harmful to your engine!”
I’m kidding, of course. Used wisely, a flow bench can be a useful tool in engine development, just like a timing light or a dynamometer. Unfortunately, some racers believe that a flow bench is the ultimate answer machine.
Recycling is unquestionably good for the health of planet Earth, but it is risky when you are building a race engine. My environmentally conscious teenage daughter has impressed on me the importance of recycling soft drink cans and newspapers for the good of future generations. The motivation to reuse race engine parts is usually financial, not ecological. I think it’s just bad business to reuse engine parts that are mismatched, outdated, or just plain worn out in the hope of saving a few dollars. Usually it turns out to be more expensive in the long run, and the results are seldom what you expected.
What drives a person to want to race? There are certainly less stressful, less expensive, and less tiring ways to spend a weekend. While some people are content to channel surf or grow roses, I’ll wager that the readers of National DRAGSTER have a different idea about the best way to occupy their time.
People race for a variety of reasons. For some, racing is a business – a fortunate few are actually paid to drive race cars, or they earn a living from the sport as a parts manufacturer, engine builder, mechanic, or some related occupation. Others participate because they relish the challenge of competition or the rush of driving a fast car. Racing can be therapeutic, too – a welcome escape from the daily grind of deadlines and minor aggravations.
So if racing fills so many needs, why do I encounter such unhappy people at the races?
The signs of spring are unmistakable: flowers are blooming, basketballs are bouncing in the playoffs, and race car exhausts are booming. Racers are shaking off their winter doldrums, and race cars are coming out of hibernation in unheated garages and shops. But before you rev up for the new season, it’s essential to clean the cobwebs out of both your brain cells and your race car.
Racers have a tendency to focus on high-tech equipment, but this is the time of year to pay attention to the basics. Even the most sophisticated computers operate on a very simple binary system: they reduce the universe to ones and zeroes, to “Off” and “On.” A computer can tell you the driveshaft rpm at every millisecond during a run, but it can’t tell you why your engine is popping and banging at the top of low gear. That’s something you’re going to have to figure out using your analog human brain.
At the 1968 Summer Olympics, gold medal winner Bob Beamon soared 29 feet in the long jump – a leap nearly 3 feet longer than the previous record. Beamon excelled in jumping across a sand pit – but if jumping to conclusions were an Olympic event, I have no doubt that a drag racer would win the gold.
Jumping to conclusions is an occupational hazard in racing. We want our cars to run faster, more consistently, and more successfully. The pressure to perform is intense, and often we allow our emotions to overrule our common sense.
Although the title of this column is “Technically Speaking,” I’m going to stray from my usual nuts-and-bolts topics for this final column of the year. I’d like to comment on the only subject that concerns racers more than horsepower: money.
My fellow back-page columnist Ken Owen can certainly write with authority about the evil produced by the love of money. Our parents told us that money can’t buy happiness, and the Beatles sang to us that money can’t buy love. I’m going to add another item to the list of things that money can’t buy: success in racing.
I know that deep pockets are better than empty pockets. But I also know that without desire and determination, money is like gold plating – flash without substance.
You won’t see my name alongside Stephen King and Tom Clancy on the list of best-selling authors, and my book is not likely to be reviewed by the New York Times. Nevertheless I’m very proud to have joined the ranks of professional writers. When the first bound copies of the two-volume Reher-Morrison Engine Assembly handbooks arrived at the shop, I felt the same sense of accomplishment that I get when we fire a new engine on the dyno for the first time.
I really can’t take credit as the sole author of this work. Like the Encyclopedia Brittanica and the Bible, the 433-page Engine Assembly books were a collaborative effort, albeit on a much smaller scale.
I haven’t checked the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of endangered species recently, but I’m willing to bet that the small-block V8 is on the list. While the small-block is still the engine of choice in oval track racing and several NHRA sportsman eliminators – notably Stock, Super Stock, Competition, and Pro Stock Truck – the big-block V8 has simply taken over the heads-up eliminators and fast brackets.
There is a reason why the Rat motor reigns as the king of the quarter-mile: the big-block Chevy is durable, heavy-duty, and the best bargain in motor racing.
“Under extreme pressure and temperature, the cylinder charge virtually explodes in the chamber.”
Back in drag racing’s Dark Ages when Reher-Morrison Racing Engines was building 287ci small-blocks by the dozens for Modified Eliminator, I used to wish that we could build engines without fighting for every point of compression. That desire now falls under the heading, “Be careful what you wish for.” Now that we are building scores of big-block Chevrolets with nearly twice the displacement of those vestpocket small-blocks, it’s very easy to end up with too much compression!
“Dynamometers have dramatically expanded the pool of knowledge in drag racing – and knowledge is power in our sport.”
In my view of the world, three discoveries changed the course of human development: fire, which ultimately led to the invention of internal combustion; the wheel, which evolved into the drag racing slick; and the engine dynamometer, which has been the great equalizer in drag racing.
“If we had Pro Stock cylinder heads fifteen years ago that were as good as the heads you can buy off the shelf today, we’d have killed ’em.”
I am truly astounded by the choices in competition cylinder heads that are available today. When I started my racing career 27 years ago, the only source for cylinder heads was a junkyard. Now racers can buy heads that are better than anything we raced in Pro Stock not too many years ago.
“Reliability is more important than horsepower when you have to pay your own engine repair bills.”
You don’t have to be a cardiologist like my fellow back-page columnist Dr. Torstveit to appreciate the importance of blood in the human body. I’ve watched enough episodes of “ER” and “Chicago Hope” to know that even a momentary interruption in the flow of blood to the brain can cause permanent damage.
At the risk of repeating a cliché, I’ll state categorically that oil is the lifeblood of an engine. The consequences of erratic oil delivery in a racing engine can be just as traumatic as the medical emergencies on television shows – but instead of comas and strokes, the likely results are broken connecting rods and catastrophic engine failures.
“A race car deserves the same respect as an airplane”
Racing engines are like dogs and babies: They communicate in ways that not everyone can understand. When Duke, my Labrador retriever, is thirsty or wants to go outside, he doesn’t need to send me a memo or speak to me in perfect English. We communicate in nonverbal ways, and he has trained me how to interpret his actions and expressions. I have also learned that if I ignore what Duke is telling me, it’s very likely that I’ll end up with a mess on the kitchen floor to clean up.
A racing engine will also tell you when it is in distress. There are early warning signs that indicate when something is wrong. If you learn how to listen to your engine and interpret its messages, you can save a ton of money. And if you chose to ignore what your engine is saying, you will probably end up with a mess in the bottom of the oil pan to clean up.
“We learned some shocking truths about valvetrains.”
In the last two months, I have discovered a new kind of power: the power of the press. I’ve worked with mills, lathes, and hones for thirty years, so it was a real challenge for me to sit down at a word processor and begin my second career as a writer. I genuinely appreciate the comments and compliments I have received since I joined the ranks of National DRAGSTER’s back-page columnists.
My sense of humor is no match for Bob Frey’s, and I can’t offer any insights into the human condition like Rev. Owen and Dr. Torstveit. I do know a little about building engines, however, and that is going to be my subject. I promise that I won’t deluge you with theory and analysis; my intention is to offer practical advice and real-world recommendations based on my own experience.
I don’t make any claim that my word is gospel – I’ll leave that to the good reverend. Other engine builders may not agree with my opinions about particular parts and procedures, but I know what works for us at Reher-Morrison Racing Engines.
“Dead valvesprings, like dead canaries, are a sure sign of trouble ahead.”
This is the time of the year when a racer’s thoughts turn to next year. The brief break between seasons provides a welcome opportunity to spend some time thinking rather than wrenching. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that the decisions you make in December will have an enormous impact on your chances of winning races next summer.
The most important thing a racer can do right now is to develop a plan. Without question, the most common mistake in racing is to buy parts impulsively without having a clear vision of where you want to end up. The result is often a pile of mismatched pieces that will never work together properly.
When I was a math major studying at the University of Texas, my career plan never included writing a monthly column for the back of National DRAGSTER. I also recall that it didn’t say anything about becoming a professional engine builder. I’m sure that my parents thought that my fascination with drag racing was just a passing phase, and that I would get a “real” job someday. That was almost 30 years ago, and my interest in engines and racing is stronger than ever.
Although I’m more accustomed to working with a torque wrench than a word processor, I am looking forward to this new assignment. Warren Johnson is a tough act to follow, both on the race track and on the pages of this newspaper. Just as W.J. and I have different approaches to racing, we have different approaches to writing, too. Don’t expect to read any theoretical dissertations on induction system harmonics or advanced valvetrain dynamics here. I intend this page to be a place where bracket racers and weekend warriors can get practical, hands-on advice about engines.